Per Goran Eklund: Being in Georgia is like dancing the Tango — two steps forward, one step backward, two steps forward, one step backward…

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Head of the European Union Delegation to Georgia, Ambassador Per Goran Eklund, finishes his term of office at the end of October. Before returning to his native Sweden, Ambassador Eklund shares with Tabula magazine impressions of his four-year tenure. 

It’s been four years since you came to Georgia. What did you do before becoming the Head of the EC Delegation in Tbilisi? What were the expectations when you applied for the post and to what extent has your stay corresponded to your expectations?

Before I joined the European Commission, I worked in the education system of Sweden. When Sweden became a member of the European Union, there were job openings for Swedish nationals. I decided to apply. I participated in the competition and got the job. The competition was hard; I had to pass it in English, French and German. Pretty soon I became the coordinator of all EU assistance in all the former USSR countries. That’s how I traveled to Georgia several times.
Then I was posted in the Caribbean, which was nice, sunny and warm, sandy beaches and palm trees. But I wanted something more politically challenging. After the Rose Revolution, Georgia began to implement ambitious reforms and I wanted to be a part of it. So, I had Georgia as my first option for my next posting, and I got it. Frankly speaking, it went beyond my expectations and turned out to be even more of a challenge than I asked for. These four years turned out to be very turbulent - unrests in November 2007, the war in 2008, long drawn-out protests in the streets in 2009, political instability. But it has been very interesting.

What was the Georgian State like when you first visited it and what is it now?

When I first came here in 2000, it was a failed state and there were lots of problems. In those days one of our Delegation staff members was murdered, one of our experts was kidnapped for six months. I was here in 2002 when one colleague of mine found his dog with its throat cut at his doorstep. He packed and went back to Europe.
Of course, Georgia has moved on since then. But there’s also impatience among the Georgian population as a whole and also among politicians. And I believe sometimes decisions have been taken too hastily and without taking into consideration all the consequences. That’s why some mistakes have been made. But the impatience of the population is also an important factor. They don’t realize that it does take time to build a viable strong democratic state. You don’t do it overnight. You need to build the institutions; you need to raise competence of people; you need to delegate powers to people; you need to change the mindset of people. Look how you drive cars; you cannot stand in the queue, you cannot wait for the green light.
One of the problems of Georgia is that basically you have always been occupied and therefore, by definition, Georgian people do not trust authorities. It does not matter whether it is represented by Saakashvili or someone else. And this is also hampering the reform process.
I’ve never been in a country where people are so clever in coming up with conspiracy theories. I remember after the war one opposition leader explained to me that the whole war was a setup between Saakashvili and Putin.
But having said that, Georgians are very resourceful people. If you had not been like that, you would not have been able to preserve your unique language, alphabet, national identity. You have a strong core of that in you as well, and that is probably what has kept you alive and kept you as a unity. You are smart people.
I like to go into debates and argue. I like to work with the kindergarten government of Saakashvili, as Forbes magazine once said. All these twenty-seven-to-thirty-year-old ministers are well educated; they are determined to do a good job. They are also arrogant, arrogant like hell. But they are fun to discuss issues with. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t -- but that’s fine.
Georgia has come a long way. We criticized Georgia in a number of areas: the media situation, yes, we can still criticize that; the lack of pluralism and editorial independence of journalists that is linked both to ownership control and to the competence of journalists. But there are also improvements in that sector which we can notice. On the human rights side, yes, there was a period when it seemed that all opposition leaders had either illegal weapons or drugs in their pockets, but that has diminished. So these are good developments. Independence of the court and judicial reforms have proved to be on the right track. There’s still a lot work to be done, but again, you don’t do it overnight. What’s important is that the process is on the right track. I once said in an interview that being in Georgia is like dancing the Tango - two steps forward, one step backward, two steps forward, one step backward.
Every time we criticize Georgia, we must assess where it comes from. And if I would wish something for Georgia, that would be to have more responsible opposition take part in the political process, and not sit out and criticize everything. They must be able to communicate to people what they are for, and not only focus on what they are against. Only then can we have a decent political debate.
But having said that, arrogant ministers must also learn to listen to others. Because being in opposition does not mean that you’re always wrong. Dialogue and the involvement in political processes are necessary. But this comes with stability of the system and maturity of the people.

Despite the turbulent political climate and tense schedule, working in Georgia creates great interest among foreigners. Why?

Georgia is an interesting place to work because things are happening. There is progress. And, as an international community, you can also support that progress. You have an impact. I really think that my work is meaningful. We don’t waste money. We have improved the livelihood of thousands of internally displaced persons by financing new dwellings. We have had economic development projects in Akhalkalaki which have improved the livelihood of numerous small farmers. Through our activities, we have strengthened civil society.
This post had the highest number of applicants of all thirty head-of-delegation posts that were up for applications this year. And I don’t think this is because people are looking for trouble. They are looking for something that stimulates them. When you’re here you don’t rest, you’re working 24 hours a day. It also invigorates you because it stimulates you.

How did you feel during the August war?

It was a weird feeling. I never thought it would happen. I thought provocations would increase, but I never thought there would be a real war. I was in Sweden at the time. I had to grab a flight to Armenia and drive from there because the Tbilisi airport was closed. When the actual fighting was over I went behind Russian lines with my car to Gori, which was like a ghost town with burned houses. We were stopped by these eighteen-year-old, badly trained, trigger-happy armed Russian soldiers who asked stupid questions, and we never knew what was happening. I did not feel I was in danger, but it felt strange. I knew that we needed to mobilize ourselves to help Georgia to get back on its feet again. So immediately after the war events were over, this building was occupied by experts and visitors from Europe. We drew up a plan that turned into the European Union Monitoring Mission pretty quickly. That was the fastest monitoring mission EU ever deployed in the world. That was a sign of commitment to Georgia’s cause. Europe wanted to demonstrate that we were behind Georgia. And the October donor conference in Brussels at which we pledged more money than initially announced to help Georgia was further proof of that support.
I also did not think the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be recognized by Russia. With the problems they have in the North Caucasus, why would they risk supporting these breakaway authorities? What signal would it send to their own breakaway regions? That surprised me. But now that we are in that situation, we have to live with that. We will slowly see how the strategy and action plan for engagement with the breakaway regions will work out and, simultaneously, try to strengthen the Geneva process. But this will be a long and difficult process. You need to be patient. It took Germany fifty years to reunite. I’ve been to Abkhazia many times, and I don’t think Georgians generally understand how successfully Tbilisi authorities have been demonized through propaganda. When they talk to me about the Georgian leadership, the policies, the Georgian people, or what’s happening in this country, they don’t talk about the Georgia I know. They talk about the Georgia they believe exists, and that is so different from reality. And to overcome that, you need to build confidence, and that’s a long process. It’s not there. The demonization has been very successful.

During 1992-2007, the European Union spent more than 530-million Euros in Georgia through assistance programs, not to mention financial aid that was committed after the war. Critics say that most of this money goes not to Georgia but to the pockets of European bureaucrats…

That’s a very simplistic view. If we have a technical assistance project, let’s say with the Ministry of Agriculture to develop a strategy, of course part of the money is paid to the experts that are drafting the strategy. In that sense, there is some element of truth in what you said. But all these projects are being implemented in agreement with the Government. It’s not that we are imposing them. People are to be paid for what they are doing, and experts are usually paid quite well. The interesting thing is that we are moving more and more away from technical-assistance projects toward budget support. Right now as we speak, we have a budget-support program with the Ministries of Finance, Justice and Education, and there is also one coming up with the Ministry of Health and Labor. These are programs where only a small amount of money goes to the experts. Money goes to the Government budget on conditions. We agree on the conditions with the Government based on their own action plans and strategy documents. And when they have achieved what they have set for themselves to achieve, they get the money. It has worked very well here in Georgia because money goes straight to the budget and it is linked to the progress of reforms.

Briefly about Georgia-EU relations, where do they stand now?

Georgia is an active member of the European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership, but neither of them has the prospect of membership as an end result. But they will integrate Georgia into European structures. We now have visa facilitation coming on-stream; the next step will be a visa-free regime. We are starting the Association Agreement, hopefully within a couple of months. In half a year, we will launch a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement.
And, again, one thing I have learned in Georgia while working with Georgians is that when you set your mind to things, you usually achieve them. Which one of us would, twenty years ago, have said that the Baltic States would become EU members? No one. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, personally speaking I hope I will see Georgia as an EU member before I am laid to rest. But we must bear in mind that my father lived until he was ninety-two and my mother has turned ninety-seven, so that could very well be far into the future.

The President of Georgia recently told Tabula that social programs in Europe have experienced a great blow as a result of the global economic crisis; that Europe is gradually moving away from excessive regulation and bureaucracy; that Europe will make more steps towards a free economy, and that we will meet somewhere midway. What would you say about that?

No matter how liberal the economy is, every country needs some rules and regulations. There are twenty-seven member states in the EU. We have Estonia, which has a very liberal economy and still is a member of the EU. There’s no contradiction. You can have a liberal economy, while other countries can have a more social approach. There are different approaches in the countries. I can’t say to what extent any of these approaches have changed because of the global economic crisis. But a country like Greece now has to examine its social system, in many views a quite excessive social-benefit system. So does France. So does my country. It is easier for the rich countries to have excesses than for the poor countries. The State budget is like a household budget – you need to adapt your costs to your income.

Any particular plans for the future?

I will move to Sweden, where I have not lived for eighteen years – and I am bit nervous. I will have the opportunity to travel a lot. I’ve had some offers to do consultancy work, but I don’t want to do that. I want to sit back for two months, look around the world and see what it offers. Right now I am fit and healthy. I don’t feel old, but I will not be fit and healthy for the rest of my life. So I need to use these years to do something. I would like to share my experience with others. I would like to lecture at the universities. I hope to come back to Georgia in 2012 and 2013 to monitor your elections, for instance. I have five grandchildren; I could be a super-nanny for them. I know my wife is getting a bit worried because she is not used to having me at home for twenty-four hours. Because I am rather impatient like Georgians, I easily get bored. I need to do something, but I am sure I will find something. My wife even asked me if I was planning to get a dog. I love dogs. A dog is the only creature that is always happy to see you and always willing to do things with you. It’s an ego boost to have a dog. But it’s also an obligation because it ties you down.

Your successor has been appointed already. What would be your message to him?

I am actually working on the hand-over file. I am trying to put together all the advice which a new ambassador may find useful – who are good contacts in the government to establish relations with in the beginning; what are the problems; what are the positives and negatives; where do we stand with our assistance – to help him get started. But he also has to form his own opinion. I will not draft it too broadly either. Every country is complex. It is not black and white; there’s lots of grey in between. The new Ambassador will need to be able to see various hues of grey, and I am sure he will manage that.
 

 

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